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SpellForce III is the third installment in the SpellForce franchise, following in the footsteps of SpellForce: The Order of the Dawn (2003) and SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars (2006), not to mention a collection of DLCs and expansion packs culminating with SpellForce 2: Demons of the Past (2014). The new -- and fourth -- developer for the series is Munich-based Grimlore Games. This is their debut effort.
SpellForce III is the same sort of game as its predecessors. That is, it's a mix of role-playing (RPG) elements and real-time strategy (RTS) elements, where you control a hero character and complete quests, wear equipment, and gain levels, while also managing bases, gathering resources, and defeating opposing armies. What makes the SpellForce franchise unique is that this mix is pretty close to 50-50 rather than the more 75-25 ratio of RTS games with "role-playing elements."
After playing the tutorial / prologue for the game, where you control a secondary character (voiced by Doug Cockle, probably best known around here as Geralt of Rivia in CD Projekt Red's Witcher trilogy), and where you learn all about the game's mechanics, you're finally allowed to create your character. This character has a minor backstory -- you're the child of a traitor -- but otherwise you can build the character however you want, including picking a gender, name, and portrait.
When designing your character, you get to select three skill trees. Three of these available trees are for mundane weapons, and three are for spells, which means you can play as a pure warrior, a pure mage, or some combination of the two. Your character also gets a fixed fourth skill tree called "Leadership," which includes auras and base-affecting abilities (like being able to add or remove trees, one of the RTS resources). The companions that you meet only get the three skill trees; instead of the fourth, they have an "affinity" skill that they unlock once they've gotten to know you well enough.
Characters also have a collection of attributes: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, and wisdom. These attributes do about what you'd expect. Strength and dexterity improve weapon damage, intelligence and wisdom improve spell damage, and constitution grants more health.
Nicely, instead of maintaining individual experience totals for all of your characters, you just have "party experience." So every time you kill a creature or complete a quest, the experience goes to your party experience rather than to the characters in your current party, and then all of your characters -- whether you've been using them or not, or whether you've even recruited them or not -- have the party experience. This is thoroughly convenient since it means you're not penalized for trying out different combinations of companions (of which there are about ten to choose from for your four-character party), or for missing companions when they're first available and then recruiting them later than expected.
Also nice is the fact that there are a bunch of re-spec potions in the game (all of your companions come with one, for example), and they're not all that expensive to purchase. So if you decide that your build isn't working out, or if a companion isn't complementing you properly, or if you find a cool weapon that's just out of your reach, then you can deal with the problem without much in the way of hassle. Of course, the re-spec potions only reset your skill and attribute points. Your skill trees become fixed when you choose them, so you can't reset everything.
On the downside, despite having multiple skill trees with lots of skills available, characters can only "equip" three active skills or spells at once. This seems overly restrictive, and it forces characters to focus on a few skills rather than becoming jacks of all trades. It also means that some useful but rarely-used skills (like the leadership ability to create trees) probably get ignored completely because they're not one of the top three, and swapping skills around is a little cumbersome, especially in a game where you're not allowed to pause.
But overall the character system works reasonably well. Three (or four) skill trees give you a variety of ways to build characters, and you earn enough points while playing that you can learn the skills and spells that you find important without learning everything.
The world in SpellForce III is divided up into distinct maps. A couple of the maps are for cities, where you can wander around, talk to people, and go shopping, but the rest are for missions. The SpellForce III campaign is fairly linear, so if a map is open to you then you should be able to complete it.
When you enter a map, you start out in RPG mode. In this mode, you only have your party of characters available to you -- that is, your main character plus at most three companions. RPG mode lets you explore at least some of the map and also talk to people to set up the mission. Then when you receive your town center, RTS mode takes over, where you're allowed to construct your base, gather resources, and build up an army -- while your opponent does the same thing. I'll discuss each mode in turn.
Of the two modes, RPG mode is by far the best, not that this is saying a whole lot. The story for the campaign involves a plague called the Bloodburn. It kills the living and raises the dead, and you're sent out to discover what's causing it. During your investigation, a war breaks out, and you end up leading the opposition. So you're given a lot to do: figure out what's going on, rally troops to your cause, and beat back an invading army. This works well given the RTS portion of the game.
The writing and the voice acting are surprisingly well done, especially when compared to the original SpellForce. The story has some twists and turns, but they're set up well, and they make sense even when you look back at them at the end of the game. What helps is that all of the characters are given motivations for their actions -- even the bad guys, who aren't just doing evil things because they're evil. So everything flows well.
You also get to converse with your companions in between missions, but they sometimes feel like talking wikipedia pages rather than people, as they spend more time informing you about what they represent in the game rather than conveying a compelling story. So the dwarf tells you about dwarves, the demonologist tells you about his school of magic, the persecuted mage describes the hardships that mages go through, and so on. These conversations aren't always interesting to listen to, but you have to go through them to complete the companion quests and unlock the companion affinity skills.
SpellForce's RPG mode fits in as an action RPG. I'm pretty sure only one skill in the game (bartering) affects dialogue in any way, and everything else is about combat. So you get a lot of simple objectives -- talk to somebody, find something, kill something -- and there isn't much actual role-playing involved. And even when you do get to make a decision, it never affects the main arc of the story. For example, early on you have to decide whether you should massacre an infected village to potentially save the rest of the kingdom. But no matter what you choose, the village gets massacred, so your decision only changes a couple of lines of dialogue later on.
As you're exploring and killing things, you of course find some equipment. Characters can wear body armor, a helmet, two rings, a necklace, a trinket / potion, and up to two items in their hands -- either a two-handed weapon, dual-wielded weapons, or a weapon and a shield. Tougher enemies tend to drop better loot, and there are also lots of hidden items around, where you have to collect pieces or read notes to find / craft them. In general, the equipment is effective, and the treasure hunts are great (although maybe a bit obscure at times). But by the end, my main character had 80% resistance to everything, and he could do massive damage with his two-handed sledgehammer, which was overkill. There isn't any set equipment.
In part because of the equipment, your main character and your companions get to be way too powerful in the game, for RPG mode and RTS mode both. I played using the "hard" difficulty setting, and early on I had some tough fights (including one against a dragon where I got destroyed). But by the midway point, nothing had a chance against me, and even the boss fights were easy, including an elder dragon who couldn't even out-damage my healers. Balance is always a tough thing, especially in a hybrid game like SpellForce III, but Grimlore Games has a ways to go to get it right.
The RTS mode in SpellForce III is by far the worst part of the game. I didn't like anything about it in theory or in implementation. It's a micromanaging nightmare where the interface doesn't give you a lot of help.
Each mission map is divided into a dozen or so sectors. You get a town hall in one sector, and that sector represents your main base. If you lose your town hall, then you lose the game. The other sectors are separate but connected. You can claim a sector by having one of your hero characters build an outpost there. Only the owner of a sector can build anything in the sector or gather the sector's resources.
Each outpost grants you some workers for the sector. You can upgrade the outpost to gain more workers, with a maximum of about 15 workers total. These workers can gather resources (by being assigned to a resource building like a quarry or a logging cabin), they can transport goods (by being assigned to the outpost), or they can defend the sector (by being assigned to a tower). As this description implies, your workers are spread pretty thin, and so you have to make some tough decisions about what resources you want to gather, and if you want to try defending the sector at all.
Sectors share resources with each other (but not workers), so you have to maintain several sectors and keep track of what they're producing to run an effective economy. Unfortunately, the interface doesn't help you a lot with this. If you bring up the mission map, then you can see the outline of each sector, what resources are available in each sector, and how many workers are unassigned in each sector, but that's it. The interface doesn't give you an easy way to see how many logging cabins you have, or if a quarry has run out of stone, or how upgraded the outpost is, and so you have to keep checking everything manually, which is a problem since you can't pause the game, and you're trying to expand and defend as quickly as possible.
Worse, the RTS balance is awful -- even worse than the RPG balance -- because of how much the computer-controlled enemies cheat. Perhaps in an effort to counteract how powerful your party of characters is, Grimlore gives all sorts of free troops and resources to your enemies. This allows them to expand quickly, and if they get to the point where they start can producing their own troops and resources in combination with the free troops and resources, then you have no chance. By the time you defeat one huge wave of enemies -- even if you have defensive towers and RTS troops backing you up -- the next wave comes in, and there isn't any way to make progress.
As a result, you can't play the RTS missions in the "right" way. If you take the time to capture sectors, grow your economy, and expand your army, then it's already too late. The only way to win is to take your party of characters and immediately send them to the enemy town center, so they can destroy it and end the mission before your enemy can gain a foothold anywhere. Because of this, despite finishing the campaign I can't tell you anything about any of the three available factions (humans, elves, and orcs) because I barely used them. They were almost immaterial to completing the RTS missions.
Bugs and Other Technical Issues
For a while I considered using "oof" as the only word for this section of the review, or perhaps channeling The Shining and repeating "oof" over and over again, but then I decided that you might want something more descriptive if not necessarily more accurate. So here goes.
From what I can tell -- and this is complete conjecture on my part -- SpellForce III didn't receive any sort of professional beta testing at any time during its development. Grimlore Games has simply relied on the bug reports from people playing the game -- whether from the free beta weekend before its release, or from the live guinea pigs playing it now. As a result, Grimlore quickly learned about a bunch of bugs -- bugs they should have known about earlier -- and released a bunch of patches -- about one a day over the game's first two weeks -- to compensate. Some people might point to the patches and say they're proof that Grimlore is dedicated to providing a quality product. My view is that they desperately didn't want anybody asking for refunds. Plus, they wanted to make sure that the game could even be finished.
Anyway, skills were broken, quests were broken, and dialogue was broken. I got lucky during my playthrough. Since I tend to play games slower than others -- or perhaps "in a more thoughtful way" is a better descriptor -- by the time I got to certain places in the campaign, many game-breaking bugs had already been fixed. But even so, about 10% of the quests I received ended up breaking, and the problem was always something dumb. For example, one of the final quests involves looting a treasure room, but there's a door along the way that doesn't open when you click on it, so you can't go through. How could a bug that simple make it into a game's final release? And how could it possibly still be there three weeks later? Those are questions you might ask a lot while playing SpellForce III.
Or how about this for ineptitude? The dialogue is a mess. I lost count of how many times I had conversations where the subtitles didn't match the spoken words, where you got stuck in an infinite loop and couldn't advance a quest, where you weren't given an exit option and simply had to walk away from an NPC to break off the conversation, where a conversation prematurely ended and you had to start over, or an NPC repeated quest dialogue after the quest was complete. If you're a developer and simple dialogue coding is beyond you, then forget about creating an RPG/RTS hybrid.
Do you want more? The maps are so dark that it's tough to tell where you've explored, and you're not allowed to do any annotating. The loading times are excruciatingly long, especially since you're forced to listen to a narrator drone on about the map area you're in. Enemies always attack you in a straight line from their town hall to yours, so you always know where they're going to be. The camera is designed so poorly that sometimes it can't show you where you are and has to jitterbug around to some other location. And characters sometimes have trouble with pathfinding, so if you click on a location about an inch away, they decide to wander over to the other side of the map and back. Oof, oof, and more oof.
Somewhere deep in the current version of SpellForce III, there's a potentially fun game waiting to emerge. It's just a matter of whether Grimlore Games can cut away enough bugs and sculpt the balance enough so the good game can find a way to the surface. Right now, even after a dozen patches, SpellForce III still has lots of problems -- too many problems, really -- but it works, and it might provide some enjoyment for fans of real-time strategy and role-playing games. But I'd recommend waiting for another month or two, and for a few more patches, and probably for a price drop, before trying it out.